Monthly Archives: February 2017

Asking Acquaintances About Mutual Friends

All business is people business ultimately, and so improving your ability to size someone up should be a relentless priority — it is for me, anyway. By “size a person up” I mean figuring out how much you trust a person, how you can best collaborate with him, whether you’d hire her, whether you should fire him.

One of the simple ways I size a person up is by understanding how they understand and judge other people. In this way, I start to be build a model of the person I’m getting to know. I get to know their likes and dislikes, their biases, their underlying motivations, and of course their meta ability to evaluate people — all by hearing them talk about friends I know well.

Practically speaking, when I meet someone new, I like to ask them about someone we know in common. “So how do you know Jane?” Sure, it’s a trite question. But it can lead to a substantive exchange. It doesn’t have to be gossip. How has this person partnered with Jane? What’s frustrated him about Jane? What have been the delights?

When you ask someone to talk about their relationship with someone else, they often inadvertently reveal a lot about who they are.

At a breakfast meeting, I once asked an acquaintance — who I was also evaluating as a prospective business partner — to describe how he knew a mutual friend. As I probed, I realized this acquaintance spoke in condescending, patriarchal terms about a person who I very much considered his peer. It was revealing. I may not have gotten a glimpse at this element of his oversized ego if we had not gone down this path.

In another case, by talking about mutual friends I realized the person I was speaking to grasped subtleties about a friend’s personality that I had missed, and it made me all the more excited about partnering with him because of his extraordinary ability to make sense of at least one complicated person — and likely many others.

Bottom Line: Get to know someone new by asking him or her about someone you already know well.

Knowledge Accumulates Over Generations

One of the central takeaways from Chuck Klosterman’s book is that throughout history many well-verified “truths” about how the world works have, in time, been proven wrong. He provocatively asks: Which assumptions about the world do we hold dear today that subsequent generations, benefitting from greater scientific discovery, will laugh at?

You can learn this lesson vividly in the arena of building engineering and home repair, as I have.

Consider a building structure that was originally built 100 years ago but has been updated over time. An engineer will inspect the building and say, “Oh, that foundation work utilized a technique that was common in 1980.” Or: “That way of supporting a second story addition was popular in the 70’s.” A specific building technique is easily timestamped based on the prevailing knowledge at that time. With the punch line being: There’s a different best practice today. “In 2017, we do it differently.” And, usually (but not always) — it’s a better technique.

It’s inspiring to see how building engineers continue to iterate their approach. And it occurred that it’d be amusing if management consultants similarly couched their advice in before-and-after timestamped language. “That way of doing performance management was popular in the 80’s, but we know better now.” “Structuring your decision making that way was popular in the 90’s, but we know better now.”

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Related, somewhat of a counterpoint: The always provocative Robin Hanson says one of the big neglected problems in the world is that each generation has to re-learn lessons during its individual lifetimes.

Neglected Big Problems